Ruan van der Merwe was thrown in the deep end at India’s first-ever adventure race: the Himalayan Challenge. With team Keyhealth Jabberwock, he battled altitude, inexperienced organisers, and some hardcore local teams for an excellent result. Here is Ruan’s story.
Team KeyHealth Jabberwock at the Himalayan Challenge
What is better than getting an almost free entry to do an adventure race in the Himalayas? Finding out about it with less than a month to go! This means there is no time to fuss or worry: just decide, get your kit and go.
As exciting as this was, we had our speed bumps. Ryno Griesel, one of the original team members, was still in Europe on his UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) trip which meant there was no way that he could return in time and immediately head off onto another adventure. Janneke Leask, the other Jabberwock team member, had just broken her collar bone – cycling on tar – not taking a selfie. Luckily there were enough stand-ins ready to grab the opportunity, so old Red Ants/Jabberwock stalwart Nicky Booyens, stood in for Janneke, and I was more than ready to take Ryno’s place. With Craig Metherell and Cobus van Zyl the team was complete.
Since this was the first adventure race held in India, we were all in for a huge learning curve. Most of the usual pre-race information we have become accustomed to was somewhat lacking – or just non-existent. This included small things, like travel details and mandatory equipment lists, leaving us to mostly wing it. They did, however, find it critical to send out the ranking order of officials – starting with the president and down for another 26 levels. Turns out the mandatory kit list was a mountain bike and a helmet – not even joking!
Nevertheless, our minimalist packing approach was still a magnitude better than some of the local Indian teams. For all of them it was their first AR experience and most of them were cycling on sponsored Hero mountain bikes. Needless to say for many of them it was pretty much their first time on a MTB. It even came with a pretty kickstand!
Getting really, really high
Understandably we had slight paranoia concerning the altitude, since we knew the lowest point in Leh would be around 3,500m ASL (Above Sea Level) and knew we were to visit the Khardung La pass at a cool 5,400m ASL – the highest drive-able pass in the world! To put it into perspective, the highest point in South Africa is Mafadi Peak at 3,450m. Our hotel in Leh was at around 3,600m.
Arriving in Leh by airplane, you are greeted by a recording repeatedly telling you to drink lots of water, rest for at least 24 hours but preferably 36 hours [before ascending] and don’t sleep during the day. To highlight the altitude issue further, oxygen cylinders are also standing around at the reception area of each hotel for just in case.
In direct violation of the recorded voice we organised a taxi to immediately take us up to the South Pullu check point on Khardung La pass, at an altitude of roughly 4,600m. We spent an hour there walking around in the light snow which fell, taking in the limited sights and even included a 100m dash, just to properly frighten our bodies into building more red blood cells – you know – everything we were told not to do. As a result, we all had some form of dizziness coming and going and we all were seriously out of breath just walking around.
For the rest of the day we chilled at the hotel, assembling our bicycles, drinking lots of water, walked to the markets, drinking lots of water, peeing a lot, drinking lots of water, ate, peeing a lot etc. The next day we had breakfast and went back up to the South Pullu check point for phase two of our super hasty acclimatisation attempt. This time we were already feeling much better and hiked up a further 200m or so until we were sure that we were higher than Mont Blanc, the highest point in the Alps, just because we can (and to acclimatise of course).
Meet the other teams
By then, most of the teams had arrived at the hotel, with race briefing starting around 1pm Indian time. Indian time is like African time, just a little more chaotic.
The lack of AR understanding was clear when a couple of Indian teams announced their teams with up to seven members in them – apparently we forgot to pack our reserve Jabberwockians for the race. After some loud explanation by the organisers it was made clear that this is a four-member event and not a relay or whatever they might have thought. The end result was the creation of a new team with some of the extra racers, called the International Team, which was led by a Frenchwoman, a Navy seal from India and two local Ladakhi boys.
Due to the Ladakh region being home to the world’s highest active battlefield and the town of Leh consisting of mainly army bases, we were informed that most of the route would be marked, to prevent teams from accidentally wandering into ‘restricted areas’ – yet another twist to the usual race format. Team Jabberwock may have full confidence in Cobus, our navigator, the race organisers did not have the same confidence in some of the newer teams to the sport. Once again we just had to adapt.
The race was to be divided into two portions: a 45km prologue run followed by the actual 300km race. This was done to ensure that everyone has properly acclimatised to the altitude and also to seed the racers for the start of the AR which began at the top of Khardung La pass.
And then the festivities began!
In contrast to our local Expedition Africa, the Indian AR Federation chose to have their opening ceremony the morning of the race with all the pomp and circumstance of greatness! It almost felt as if we won already, as we had media upon media doing interviews, spectacular dancers and singers showcasing the amazing culture and then half the army of the region showing up just because they look cool. But then reality kicked in and it was time to start the race.
Apparently, being team number one means that Jabberwock to be at the back of the mass start for the prologue run… but off we went! The first section contained mainly moaning by all competitors, either about calves wanting to explode, or lungs wanting to outdo the calve muscles in aforementioned exploding. We started around 3,500m ASL and climbed roughly 350m to the highest point for the first day, but due to the altitude, and this being scree slopes, it felt a fair amount more. The Inov-8s did a good job of keeping us from sliding back too much on the scree slopes.
From the start we were sharing the first three positions with the French team and the Naval Commandos, playing a bit of cat and mouse for the first half of the race. Whilst we packed minimally, sharing two backpacks between the four of us, it was interesting to see some of the local (non-army) teams with no backpacks or refreshments whatsoever.
After overtaking the other competitors, we ran the second portion of the race mainly on our own, but well aware that the commandos couldn’t be too far behind. The route took us through a lot of quaint outlying sections of the town, surrounded by unbelievable vistas of the Himalayan mountain range. After a faster than expected run we finished in first place on day one, with the commandos a mere 15 minutes behind us. Luckily this meant we were placed in front for the start of the main race.
The real race
After some proper hydration and our special request for non-deadly curry for dinner, we were off to bed for a 4am start of the second portion of the race.
The start of the Adventure Racing portion of the race was situated at Khardung La pass, which is 5,400m ASL, so for some reference again, Everest base camp is situated at 5,364m ASL. This started with a two-hour bus ride to the top of the pass and being greeted by -10 degree weather and some lovely ice winds. After sorting our bikes and gear at the top, the teams were set off at 1-minute intervals, based on the finish position of the previous day. And off we went! (Again.)
Doing a 2,000m downhill in the space of 45km is absolutely spectacular, even whilst freezing. Riding in the valleys with the snow draped mountains on either side, is a picture none of us will forget anytime soon. Passing through the town of Leh, they ensured the whole town was put on hold so we could pass through unhindered and continue our downward journey to the first paddle, of which we were still not too sure what to expect.
After ditching the bikes for the paddle, for which a wetsuit was compulsory, we noticed that the rafts were massive 10-man rafts. We were asked if we wanted a guide, but after thinking of the vast amounts of amazing Indian food consumed by us pre-race we opted to not take another body on the boat, as we wanted to be as light as possible. Having maintained our first position, we were trying to keep our lead, but this was hindered by us spending 90% of the time on the raft trying to figure out the best combination of rowers per side (at one stage Cobus at the back on one side and the other three at the front on the other side), the other 10% was spent trying not to hit the banks of the river. Eventually the Patagonian/Argentinian team caught up with us on the paddle. Not sure if this was due to them having taken a guide, or just because they were a four man team. This did seem to spur on our competitive nature and, with some good team organization, we managed to re-pass them and be the first team to beach.
The Patagonians joined us for the start of the next MTB leg, but Craig decided that at least once this year he will get a chance to show off his biking prowess, and continued to power up the hills with the rest of us hoping we will get a chance to see his mythical tow rope so we can hang on a bit! The Patagonians then had to pull over due to a bleeding nose (Craig takes his mountain biking very seriously), and we never saw them again!
The next two legs saw us crossing into night and this was when the AR portion really started, as we began to fall asleep on the downhills and wake up again on the up hills. Luckily around 4am we reached our mandatory 6-hour sleep, which was instituted by the organisers as a precaution against altitude sickness. Whilst we initially argued against it, as going straight through the night would play to our strengths, especially against the more inexperienced teams, none of us argued when we received our sleeping bags.
We were awakened by the smell of amazing hot masala chai (a staple in our diet whilst in India) for breakfast and then trying to keep down our race food (altitude has a nasty effect on the digestive system). After a short briefing, which included some instructions not to take any photos of the secret army base to your left, and well-wishing by the race director Arun Malik, we were off on the last hike which started with a 600m climb to 4,200m ASL. On this leg we got to understand what everyone meant when saying that Ladakh’s landscape is the closest to the moon you will ever get. It is unbelievably barren and rocky with kilometre after kilometre looking exactly the same. Mental and physical fortitude was tested on this one!
A few kilometres from the end of the leg, we were greeted by the sound of Simon’s drone taking some awesome footage again; we knew this was almost done and the win was almost a done deal. With the last 13km being a mainly downhill ride into the town of Leh, we had time to take in the surroundings for one last time and appreciate the privilege we had to race in such an amazing region.
Crossing the finish line in first place, with our whole South African contingent greeting us with absolute pride, along with the Indian organisers, which have become as close to family as they will ever get, nearly reduced us to tears.